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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Emmy, Queen of Niskayuna

I'm sitting at the computer reading my morning weblogs when the dog comes up to me.

"Hey!" she says, pushing her nose into my leg. "We need to go for a walk!"

"We just got back from a walk. Why do we need to go for another?"

"Wolves endorsed Kerry! We need to connect with voters!"


"I need votes! I'm the best! Vote for me!"


"Fafnir was going to endorse me, but he went for a gila monster instead. I need votes!"

"Fafnir was going to vote for a big ol' dog. A mean dog, like Maverick up the street."

"Oh. We don't like him."

"No, we don't. Anyway, your canvassing technique needs work. Waiting until the last minute, and then suddenly rushing up at voters doesn't work. It just scares them."

"Stupid voters. They probably like cats. Squeaky cats. I'm the best!"

"You are the best, but you can't be President. You're a dog. And 'Best Dog in the Capital Region' isn't an elective office."

"Oh. Can we go for a walk anyway?"

"No, but I will let you outside to chase squirrels."

"Ohboy! Outside! Squeaky squirrels!"

"Remember they're in the back right..." I call after her, as she charges into the wrong corner of the yard. Again.

No more blogs for her.

Posted at 9:40 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Friday, October 22, 2004

Baseball Isn't Helping

As I have occasionally taken great pleasure in tweaking Red Sox fans over their many collapses, I should take this opportunity to congratualte them for their comeback win against the Yankees. It was an impressive achievement, and they deserve praise.

I'd like to say that I wish them well in the World Series, for Kate's sake if nothing else (she's from Boston), but I keep running up against the fact that I just don't like them. It's not a Yankees thing, either, as I don't have that much emotional capital invested in Yankee fandom (I don't particularly like baseball)-- if you want to see irrational fan-based hatred, ask me about Duke basketball or the Dallas Cowboys.

I don't like this team for more immediate reasons. Curt Schilling's game 6 performance was impressive, but he's an arrogant ass, and richly deserved his beat-down in game 1. Pedro Martinez has a long resume of asinine public statements as well. And the whole team has put a great deal of effort into being the anti-Yankees, with the wacky hair and all that, which I find hard to take.

Also, two fan/ media things that drive me up the wall. First and foremost, unless you're strapping on a pair of cleats and going out on the field, you don't get to refer to the team in the first person. This plagues all sports (and drives me nuts in all of them), but Red Sox fans seem to be particularly prone to it. A store-bought jersey does not confer kinship with the actual athletes, so stop.

Second, lay off the "Evil Empire" storyline. Yes, the Yankees have a huge payroll, and bought a bunch of talent in the off-season. But it's not like the Red Sox are some shoestring operation, here-- with the exception of failing to land Alex Rodriguez, they were almost exactly as rapacious and imperial as the Yankees. Unless you can convince me that going out and spending big bucks to bring Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke to Boston was somehow noble and selfless, while bringing Gary Sheffield and Kevin Brown to New York was crass commercialism, give it a rest. If the Twins, with a payroll of about a buck fifty, had beaten the Yankees, you'd have a great "plucky rebels defeat imperial power" storyline, but the Red Sox, not so much. This series wasn't the American Revolution, it was the French and Indian War.

Anyway, I hope that Kate is happy with the outcome of the World Series. But I can't say I'll be unhappy if the Sox lose.

Posted at 9:58 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

George and the Goths

(This is going to be shrill. I'll talk about baseball next.)

There's an interesting post over at Making Light, analzying the Bush Administration in terms of pointy-haired boss psychology and the motivational posters that are parodied so well at Before the comment thread mutated into a discussion of prep-school sadism, there was some discussion of the myth of the self-made man, and its importance in American political culture.

That, together with a College Republicans recruiting poster boasting a picture of George Bush in such soft focus it looked like it was shot through waxed paper, reminded me of the biggest puzzling thing about right wing politics: Why is it that a movement that relies so heavily on the rhetoric of individual achievement falls so easily into the cult of personality?

I mean, I look at this election, and the personal veneration of George Bush on the right is just profoundly creepy. It's all about him-- his personal faith, his moral clarity, his "doctrine" for foreign policy. The message is that you should vote for him because he is personally superior.

And yet, if you ask for reasons to support conservative policies independent of Bush personally, what you get is the rhetoric of individual achievement: conservatism is all about allowing individuals to take power over their own lives, and removing the heavy hand of the State from personal business (except where it's needed to squash uppity homosexuals), to allow every American the chance to become a self-made man. And yet, with few exceptions, these rugged individualists fall into lock step behind anything the Bush administration proposes, no matter how badly they need to contort basic logic to do so.

Meanwhile, the Democrats, who are supposed to be a bunch of squishy collectivists, all about banding together and forming consensus and using the state to squash individuality-- these fuzzy leftists can't stop sniping at one another. The one time in my adult life that they lucked into a politician with some actual personal charisma, they tried to distance themselves from the man at every opportunity. Yes, he had personal issues, but the Democratic base absolutely adored the man in spite of his flaws, and neither Gore nor Kerry, let alone the Deomcrats in Congress seem to want anything to do with the man.

Meanwhile, Bush has the personal charm (to me) of boiled okra ("It's a vegetable, with snot!"), and people on the right are fawning all over him.

Of course, you could argue that it's always been this way-- the Cult of Reagan makes Bush's supporters almost look sane. It also extends to lower levels of discourse-- the adulation heaped on right-wing bloggers like that gasbag Steven Den Beste by their fans is just creepy (though, to be fair, Den Beste and Reynolds may have lefty equivalents in Atrios and Kos), so it all fits together. But it's puzzing to me, all the same.

I think this is part of why I'm so creeped out by right-wing politics (that, plus the theocratic social policies). I could sort of buy some of the individual responsibility stuff (I think they take it way too far, but it's not all bad), but I find it hard to reconcile the rhetoric of individuality with the politics of personal veneration. I can't help thinking that a real devotion to individual freedom and personal responsibility should lead to at least an occasional disagreement on a major policy issue, but they just keep falling in line.

They're sort of like the tragic little Goth kiddies that I used to see waiting for the bus when I was in grad school: loudly proclaiming their unique individuality by the means of dressing and acting exactly like everyone else in their little group. They gave me the creeps, too, and not because of their valiant efforts to look like vampires.

Posted at 9:16 AM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Spies Like Us

The experiments that I'm setting up use infrared diode lasers, which mean's they're not visible. Well, OK, if you shine a fairly bright beam on a white piece of paper, and squit really hard, you can sort of see the beam, but short of that, you need some sort of infrared viewer.

There are lots of different models out there, but my favorite is probably the "Find-R-Scope", which has the best balance between image quality and depth of field (that is, you get a pretty good, clean image, and don't have to re-focus every time you move your head a few milimeters). We've got one of those in the department, but there are two of us with IR lasers, so we have to share the thing back and forth. I'd buy a second, but, well, they're $1500, give or take, and that's just a little too much to spend.

The wavelength range I'm particularly interested in, however, is close enough to the visible that it can be picked up by the cheaper IR cameras that are sold as "night vision" gear. We got one of these at Yale, which was great for low light levels (you couldn't use it with the room lights on), but had some image quality problems, particularly when looking at very bright sources. It was plenty good enough for basic beam alignment, though, and for $200, it's a reasonable back-up for the Find-R-Scope.

In looking for good IR detectors, I was steered to Night Vision Web by a fellow with a thick Russian accent at a company selling higher-end IR cameras. On calling them to place an order, the operators of Night Vision Web also turn out to have thick Russian accents, making me wonder briefly just where they're getting the stuff, and who I'm buying it from...

The second weird thing about this is that the nearly-identical copy for their monocular night vision scopes makes frequent mention of hiking and camping, making me wonder where the hell these people are hiking. I mean, yeah, it'd suck to be out in the woods and unable to see in the dark, but a good flashlight is $20-- why would you take a $200 night vision scope instead?

Or maybe they mean "hiking" and "camping" (actual quote marks are a poor substitute for the wiggly fingers, here), and this purchase is going to show up on some Homeland Security tracking list...

Posted at 8:10 AM | link | follow-ups | 6 comments

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Journal Club 3

It's always fun to look through Science during the weekly journal sweep, because it covers such a huge range of stuff. As a dreadful sentence in a draft of one of my third-year-review statements had it, Science is one of the premiere journals in all of science. There are always a host of incomprehensible bio/chem papers, but they usually have a couple of physics things, and some interesting stuff from other fields.

This week, they had one physics-type thing that looked pretty cool, "Single-Atom Spin-Flip Spectroscopy" (if you have institutional access, the abstract is here; if you don't, you're SOL. They're annoying that way.). It describes an experiment in which a small number of manganese atoms are scattered over a surface of nickel and aluminum, with occasional patches of aluminum oxide. Using a scanning tunneling microscope (STM), they can locate the Mn atoms, and see the effects of the different environments on their spin states.

This is mostly just a gee-whiz kind of thing-- I just think it's cool that we have the technology to probe single atoms in this way. I have no idea how to answer most of the obvious questions-- Why nickel and aluminum? Why occasional oxide patches? Why manganese? Is this collection of stuff a system that's of interest for some reason, or is it just crap they had lying around the lab?

Why? Who knows? (Not me.) But, hey, cool single atom stuff.

Even less in my field, there's a geophysics paper that has the gripping title "A Network of Superconducting Gravimeters Detects Submicrogal Coseismic Gravity Changes" (abstract here. You can't help wishing that the authors had the money to bring Tom Stoppard in to punch things up a little...

Despite the Kerry-esque sentence structure of the title, it pretty much tells you what you need to know: a bunch of Japanese geophysicists have a network of three very sensitive gravimeters scattered around Japan, and they've used them to measure minute changes in the acceleration of gravity due to shifts in the Earth's crust associated with an earthquake last September off the coast of Hokkaido. We're talking really small changes, here-- the biggest of the three is something like 0.000000006 m/s2.

Again, the details are a bit beyond me, this not being my field. They talk about a theoretical model of what sort of change they should expect, and the results are right in line with their observations, but I'm in no position to say if it makes any sense at all. I just think it's pretty cool that people can measure changes in the Earth's gravitational field due to earthquakes.

On a more relevant note, the visiting speaker at our colloquium this week was an author on a paper in PRL a couple of weeks back (before I started this) that's worth a mention: "Laser Spectroscopic Determination of the 6He Nuclear Charge Radius". Helium-6 is a heavier than normal isotope of helium that's created in an accelerator, and lasts for about a second. These guys have managed to measure the difference in frequency between a transition in 4He and the same transition in 6He. From that difference and a bit of atomic physics, they can determine the spatial extent of the nucleus, which you might think would be a well-known quantity, but turns out to be fiendishly difficult to measure, let alone calculate.

The coolest part of this is the way they did the measurement-- they made the He atoms in an accelerator, which embedded a bunch of 6He in a graphite target. Some of these atoms diffused out of the graphite, into the vacuum system, and were excited to a metastable state in a plasma discharge. Once they're in the metastable state, they can be cooled and trapped using standard laser cooling techniques. Of course, only about one atom in a hundred million makes it that far, and they only have a half-life of 0.8 seconds, so this all has to happen pretty quickly. Oh, yeah, and nobody can be in the room while the experiment is running, due to the neutron flux from the accelerator.

Piece of cake, right?

Despite all that, they managed to trap and observe something like 2000 atoms, and get a measurement of the nuclear size to something like 4%, way better than any of the previous measurements. This was an impressive piece of work, and if I wore a hat, I'd take it off to them.

Posted at 9:36 PM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

Stupid Design

Via Chris Mooney, a school board in Pennsylvania has voted to require the teaching of "intelligent design":

The new wording in the curriculum states: "Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s Theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origins of life will not be taught."

Beyond the patently unconstitutional nature of this (noted by Mooney), this doesn't even make sense. What does "Origins of life will not be taught" even mean?

The really depressing thing is alsewhere in the article, though:

At the end of the meeting, a tearful Carol Brown read a statement before resigning from the board. She said that on more than one occasion she had been asked if she were, "born again," referring to the Christian term for salvation.

"No one has — nor should have — the right to ask that of a fellow board member," she read. "An individual’s religious beliefs should have no impact on his or her ability to serve as a school board director."

This is as big a victory for the forces of ignorance as the curriculum change itself. That just frees up a seat on the board for another obnoxious religious loon. In fact, two of the three people who voted against this foolishness are stepping down, which makes me think that things will only get worse.

I'd like to say that the reaction to this sort of religious pestering should be to dig in even deeper, and be as big an obstruction to their agenda as possible. But then, I've never been in a position where I had to deal with these people for weeks and months at a time, which has to take a heavy personal toll. Odds are, I never will be in such a situation, as I'd lose my temper completely right around the first "Have you been born again?" Actually, it'd be a miracle if I could keep my temper long enough to end up on a school board like this in the first place...

Anyway, a real "People Suck" kind of note on which to start the day...

Posted at 8:49 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Email Questions

1) What is the point of "Test Message-- Please Ignore," sent to the entire faculty? Either you're testing whether the system is capable of sending email to the entire faculty, in which case, you ought to want to know if it worked, or you're testing something else, in which case, you don't need to send the message to the entire faculty. Also, don't think of an elephant.

2) Anti-Nader spam people: Why are you bothering me? I never much cared for the man before he embarked on his little electoral ego trip, and I have absolutely no use for him now. And even if I could fake enough sympathy for Nader voters (I know a few) to try to convince them to vote for a real candidate, there's not much point in New York. And the only people I know in Ohio hold him in lower regard than I do. Just stop, OK?

3) The Guardian's Operation Clark County: What were you thinking? Do you know any Americans? Do any of them seem like they might be people who would want to receive a nagging letter from your readers? Are you drug addicts, or deep-cover Tories?

These will be on the test.

Posted at 7:37 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Imitation Fitness Blogging

My half-assed program of getting exercise through lunchtime pick-up basketball continues. People keep telling me that I look like I've lost weight, so it's either working, or I just have very polite friends and family.

The problem with basketball as an exercise plan, though, is that it never gets easier. When I first started playing again, I could barely run up and down the court. When I'd get back to my office after playing, I was just wiped out, and could barely get anything done.

Now, after a couple of years of playing regularly, I'm in much better shape than I was. Which means I play harder-- chasing loose balls, crashing the boards, filling the lane on the fast break-- and I'm still absolutely wiped out when I get back to my office. We had a particularly good set of games yesterday, and I was so tired I could barely read in the afternoon.

If I had some different exercise program-- say, running two miles at lunch, rather than playing hoop-- it would get easier. I'm not a complete lunatic, so I'm not going to add more miles, or anything like that. It'd be a maintenance thing after a few weeks, and I wouldn't be quite so exhausted. With a competetive team game, though, I'm going to play as hard as I have to in order to win, which means that unless I start playing with guys who are really terrible, I'm going to be exhausted in the afternoon.

My life would be so much more efficient if I didn't have an intense and perfectly rational loathing of jogging.

Posted at 8:34 AM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Kook Watch

I received an email today that reminded me that I've been lax in my duty to report on the really important science news of the world. A few weeks back, I received a bit of spam from a new and exciting source: the Raelians. Among a long list of impressive achievements for the founder of their flying saucer cult, they list:

Rael also introduced the concept that the universe is fractal in nature and infinite in time and space with an infinite number of fractal levels of life and existence in the infinitely large and the infinitely small matter (see more on [redacted]).

This is, of course, exciting news, but they go on to provide a warning:

In the most recent communication, on August 20th, the Elohim have informed us that super colliders will be using technologies that will destroy life in the infinitely small worlds and should not be used as life must be protected at every level of the existence in the universe. They also said that such destruction may lead to imbalances in our own level of existence. "Science is good and should be unlimited as long as it fuses elements, but it should never be used when it breaks or cracks infinitely small particles."

So, you know, watch out for that.

The best part of the letter is really the list of signatories, which uses the classic kook trick of listing as many qualifications as possible for each person, but leaving out information that might make them look crazy. So, for example, the first person is listed as a "PhD," while the second is a "PhD Harvard University" (I think that's meant to mean that the person in question works at Harvard (he did once), not that he has a doctorate in Harvard University). Some of them have a degree and institution cited, while others have just a field ("MS Computer science and artificial intelligence Switzerland"), and a handful have nothing but a degree, which really makes you wonder what those degrees were in that even flying saucer kooks won't cite them. My favorite is the fellow who's listed as "DDS, DDPH, PhD Toronto."

Today's follow-on message appears to be responding to emails sent to them after the first round, and does so with such painful earnestness that I almost feel bad for kicking them here (which is why I've left out the names). Almost.

Posted at 7:38 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Monday, October 18, 2004

iTunes, Pro and Con

Con the first is, of course, the dorky name. There are few manifestations of the Internet age that are more irritating than the tendency to name things "iThis" and "eThat," making every product list look like a collection of typos. eStop that at once, iPeople.

But I guess I've lost that battle already.

A somewhat more substantial con is that, by listening to music mostly through the "Party Shuffle" mode, I'm losing track of albums, and new songs. We purchased a few things from Apple recently, and I don't think I've actually listened to any of those albums straight through. A new song will pop up once in a great while, which reminds me "Oh, yeah, I bought that record," but most of the new tracks vanish into the 5,000-odd that are already in the track library.

The positive side, though, is that it sometimes pulls out odd combinations of album cuts from albums that I'd forgotten entirely. Which is kind of fun, for a pop-culture junkie like myself. At least when the tracks are good ones-- every now and then, something awful pops up, and I delete it from the track library.

As a hedge against a day when I didn't have any particular inspiration for a blog post, I scribbled down the tracks from a couple of fairly good stretches a while back. Lacking other inspiration, here's one of the lists:

And that's about enough of that.

Posted at 7:59 AM | link | follow-ups | 13 comments

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